Meet Debra Brown, awaiting confirmation as Mississippi’s next federal judge

TUPELO, Mississippi – (AP) — Mississippi’s likely next federal district jurist admits she’s been a judge only for the state’s High School Mock Trial Competition.

People who know Debra Marie Brown say she’s plenty ready to don the black robe.

Brown, 49, of Jackson, isn’t a judge yet — she merely lacks consent from a majority of U.S. senators to become the state’s first black female to assume that lifetime appointment. A full Senate vote could come at any time after Congress return from their August recess.

Friends say Yazoo City native Brown has a keen sense of focus.

Brown also is described as a planner, a determined individual and likely to be studying any area of judicial experience she sees herself lacking.

“She may be petite, but she has a very strong personality,” said La’Verne Edney of Jackson, an attorney and longtime friend of Brown. “She’s very coordinated, very detailed.”

Edney said Brown “will be very prepared” when she assumes the Greenville bench vacated in January 2012 by the death of U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr. of Cleveland.

President Barack Obama nominated Brown for the post in mid-May and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved her nomination by a voice vote Aug. 1.

With few obstacles, if any, in her way to making Mississippi judicial history, she’ll also become the second Yazoo City product to take the federal bench in recent years, following now-Judge Carlton Reeves’ confirmation in late 2010.

Reeves became Mississippi’s second black district court judge. The state’s first, Henry Wingate, continues on the Jackson-based bench with Reeves.

Sharion Aycock of Tupelo became Mississippi’s first female U.S. district judge in 2007. Brown’s confirmation would make her the state’s second female district court judge since there is none in the Southern District.

Brown came to Mississippi State University in 1981 to study architecture.

It’s difficult to find a trace of Brown on the MSU campus, other than her academic record. The yearbook, The Reveille, during her entire five-year career, contains only two photos of her — in a large group of students living in freshman dormitory McKee Hall in 1982 and in the American Institute of Architects student group in 1986.

Former acting dean Michael Fazio remembers her as a student who overcame early struggles to excel and ultimately win the top architecture student honor, the Alpha Rho Chi Medal in her senior year of 1987.

While “some stumbles” are expected with the challenges of architecture, Fazio said he saw Brown “building momentum as she went.”

“She had a plan,” he said. “I don’t know if she knew the details of it, but we are proud of her, and maybe more for her.”

Fazio sees parallels between her architecture training and her later accomplishments in the legal world.

“You solve problems, even present your student projects and defend them in a jury room,” he said of architecture education.

“She had training here for that public pressure to come prepared to respond to questions.”

Her three key character traits, Fazio said, were perseverance, diligence and focus.

After graduation from MSU, Brown held internships and architectural associate jobs with firms in the Washington, D.C., area, where she participated in the renovation and restoration of municipal and historic buildings and the construction of new commercial and residential projects.

She is one of a small number of lawyers in the country with both an architectural and law degree.

In 1994, she entered the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Through law school, she worked on campus and then as a student clerk with the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. In the fall of 1996, she was a research assistant for Professor Barbara Phillips.

Phillips termed Brown “so impressive,” saying her student “held herself to a very high level.”

From law school, she went to the Jackson firm of Phelps Dunbar LLP, first as a summer associate in 1995 and 1996, then to associate, partner and counsel.

She also worked as a summer associate for legal competitor Wise Carter Child & Caraway those same summers, which gave her the connections to land her current shareholder status there in 2012.

Across those 16 years, her career focused on civil litigation, primarily commercial litigation with emphasis on financial and insurance cases. She’s also gone into employment law and medical malpractice.

Debra Brown has chiefly been a corporate defender for mid- to large-sized businesses.

She’s also represented some individual clients, such as state court judges, architects, contractors and pro bono clients.

In answers to a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, Brown says “essentially 100 percent of my practice has been litigation, and 100 percent of that has been civil litigation.”

To the best of her recollection, she says, she’s tried 12 cases to verdict, three before a jury. She was sole counsel on two, chief counsel on one, one of two co-counsel on eight, and associate counsel on one.

Court-watchers say this lack of courtroom time is no mark against her — the goal of most litigators is to settle, not go to trial.

Brown’s career and self-admissions show she has no experience with the criminal side of her likely new job.

Edney predicts her friend is already plowing ahead with intense study and discussions with current judges so that’s she’s more prepared when the time comes.

“I am not concerned one bit,” Edney said about that deficit. “She’s going to do fine.”

Michael Berk, director of MSU’s School of Architecture these days, said he’s known Brown the past 15 years.

Her record at MSU, he said, indicated promise of professional merit through her attitude and personality.

“We absolutely knew that she would make an important mark in the world,” Berk said.